The Importance of Gender Neutral Pronouns
12/19/2016 by Dylan James Harper
Recently, several conservative publications published stories about Oxford University asking its students to use the gender neutral pronoun “ze” on campus. Predictably, the headlines were deliberately misleading. Closer inspection indicates that this wasn’t a university mandate, but simply from a circulated leaflet. Still, the panic over the headlines was real, with thousands of total comments discussing the issue in apocalyptic tones. What does ze mean? And why does it invoke such a furious reaction from so many?
Gender neutral pronouns aren’t new. They’ve fallen in and out of favor throughout written history, and have been recorded in English since as early as the 18th century. Several individuals and communities have cited a need for more gender neutral pronouns for a variety of reasons, often linked to queer and gender theory. Language, particularly English, often defaults to male terms (mankind is perhaps the primary example). Many have called for more gender neutral terms in order to aid in achieving cultural equality (the use of terms like humankind, for example).
Recently, the trans community, which has grown in visibility throughout the decade, has made the push for more gender neutral pronouns a major cultural issue. Several conservatives have acted as if gender neutral terms are the last cultural battleground, asserting that the use of them is the last step needed to fully erode the forever nebulous concept of traditional values. Trans individuals, however, view gender neutral pronouns as a fairly simple and basic request.
The purpose of gender neutral terms in the context of the trans community is two fold: first, the use of gender neutral terms prevents a trans individual from being misgendered (the act of referring to someone as a different gender than they identify), and second, for individuals that don’t identify as a gender that falls into the narrow gender binary. The latter use is specifically for individuals that might identify as genderqueer, non-binary, or agender.
The panic from such terms is directly related to trans panic, a well research cultural phenomenon that describes cis individuals (those that are not trans) fear or disgust from trans individuals. This phenomenon takes many forms, from jokes in movies or TV shows that features characters vomiting at the prospect of having sex with a trans individual, to actual legal precedent that has excused the murder of trans individuals based on cis fear.
There is no danger of “children not knowing what a boy or girl is” as one commenter worried. The gender binary is still firmly cemented in culture. The reason to use gender neutral pronouns is simply to not actively harm trans individuals. The terms might seem silly or obtuse on first encounter, but if that’s the only reason not to use them, it really sets a dangerous precedent for not prioritizing the well being of others for slight rhetorical convenience.
Dylan James Harper is the Chief Political Editor for CSuiteMusic
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